Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Getting back into your comfort zone

We’ve all been there – that small panic when utterly lost, a sudden illness in a strange land or after 17 hours of hot, dusty travel an unexpected kindness makes clear why we call ourselves members of the human race.

If you’re a travel journalist, you’ve been in unexpected difficulties numerous times in some of Earth’s iconic locations. If you’re an active traveler, exploring and taking risks, getting out of one’s comfort zone is taken for granted. Getting back in often requires help ­­– unexpected kindness.

Read more in my Hellenic News of America travel column…

When unexpected kindness becomes the travel memory

 

Which path?

 

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5 Vietnam destinations not to be missed

 

Temple of Literature Hanoi
Temple of Literature Hanoi

The Annamite Mountains divide Vietnam’s one thousand mile strip of mountains and beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The south is tropical year round, but northern winters can be cold and damp. Political upheaval in the late 18th century led to the Nguyen Dynasty’s triumphant unification of the northern and southern factions in the early 1800s.

The Imperial City, Hue
The Imperial City, Hue

Yet political upheaval seems to have been the natural order often until 1975. The end of America’s Vietnam War allowed the Vietnamese to concentrate on what they enjoy the most — doing business. Whether it’s a BMW auto dealership in Hanoi or a convenience store in a rowboat on a bay, the Vietnamese are capitalists. It’s part of the throb of real life in Vietnam.

DSC09233

Part of life is also stunning natural beauty, crazy traffic, the silence of fog on a bay and the iridescence of a fresh pearl just shucked from its shell. One trip is not enough. This exploration highlights five key destinations in the north.

Wedding pictures at Hoan Kiem Lake , Hanoi
Wedding pictures at Hoan Kiem Lake , Hanoi

Please read the rest of…

The throb of life in northern Vietnam

in the Hellenic News of America

Hạ Long Bay
Hạ Long Bay

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Laos in the North: Poised for Change

“The idea of the Laos government is to become the battery of Southeast Asia,” Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, Time, 12/09/2010

 According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, where as in reality it is not. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or other from moment to moment.  (The Buddhist Concept of Impermanence)

Is Laos in the 19th century racing towards the 21st? Not since the 1970’s has this most relaxed of southeast Asian societies faced the prospect of monumental changes globalization is bringing to this ancient land. In a series of articles for Suite101 and the Examiner, I explore these shifting forces even as I experience centuries of tradition.


Muang Ngoi on the Nam Ou, Laos

Forested mountains and ethnic villages may dominate photos of northern Laos, but it’s the region’s swift rivers an energy hungry southeast Asia covets.

Visit northern Laos timeless scene before time runs out 

 

The Forest Retreat Laos cafe, Luang Namtha, Laos

In the misty mountain provincial capital of Luang Namtha in northern Laos, a mere 50 miles from the Chinese border, a traveler would not normally expect to enjoy a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with banana, while sipping a shot of Lao Lao.

The Forest Retreat Laos cafe and bar makes a mean grilled cheese

the Nam Oh, upriver of Nong Kiau in northern Laos

For eons, Laos 270 mile long Nam Ou has cut a path of incredible beauty providing easy transport and fertility to the northern interior.

The Nam Ou: Laos Rice Bowl River Changing Course

al fresco lunch in the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area

Roasting eggplant and tomatoes imparts an earthy flavor to these two quick and easy Laotian dips or spreads.

Roasted Eggplant and Tomatoes: Two Easy Laotian Appetizers

Nong Kiau Riverside Resort & Restaurant, Nong Kiau, Laos

In the far north of Laos, overlooking the swift flowing Nam Oh River as it cuts a path through towering forest covered limestone mountains, the Nong Kiau Riverside Resort and Restaurant melts into the lush countryside.

The view from Nong Kiau Riverside Resort and Restaurant is worth the trek

Mok Pa

An aromatic mix of onions, garlic, herbs and chili enveloping slices of fresh fish fillet may be the ingredients for Mok Pa, but the banana leaves are the secret.

Mok Pa: Laotian Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves

A relaxing ecotourism center spanning the Nam Ou, Nong Kiau is positioned to be a major player in Laos northern economic development.

Nong Kiau, Laos: Poised for Change

Ban Samsaath, Laos – a traditional weaving village

New Southeast Asian Cuisine: from Galangal to Philly Cheese Steak

galangal, on left, is darker, related but not the same as ginger, on right

Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been on the Asian trade routes to Europe for millennium. Southeast Asia was adept at fusing earlier European, Chinese and Japanese culinary influences and a century of Western colonial cuisine. The kitchens at restaurants of today’s tourist route destinations continue to preserve the past as well as innovate.

Laotian cuisine, like the nation, is much more than that land between Thailand and Vietnam. Neither as sweet nor spicy as its neighbors, the dishes of Laos are multi-layered creations of herbs, greens, meats, fish, vegetables and spices not used in Western cooking. Yum Kai Tom is one such dish that’s both easy to master as well as being quintessential Laos.

ingredients for Yum Kai Tom
Arthouse Cafe

There’s no lack of fine restaurants in Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Once the royal and spiritual capital of several southeast Asian kingdoms, Luang Prabang epitomizes tropical post-colonial romanticism. The historic core rests high on a peninsula and restaurants take advantage of the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Laos. The Arthouse Cafe, on Kingkitsarath Road, is no exception.

Purple sticky rice

Luang Prabang’s popular and excellent Tamarind Restaurant makes a terrific Khao Gam.

Stuffed Lemongrass is delicious, as the lemongrass permeates the meat with its citrus flavor.

Stuffed Lemongrass

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has no lack of interesting dining opportunities from a vibrant street food scene to the legendary Mekong River at sunset providing a stunning backdrop for a relaxing dinner at the Kong View Restaurant.

Kong View restaurant, Vientiane, Laos

A tuk-tuk full of saffron robed monks pass by the entrance to Ban Vilaylac. Their Wat is directly across the street. Appropriate location since Ban Vilaylac’s potted garden entrance bridges centuries of traditional Vientiane and French colonial Laos cuisine. Next door, reservations for either lunch or dinner are hard to come by at Makphet Restaurant, yet there are no celebrity chefs, yet the lines of appreciative diners can be long.

view from the Charming Lao Hotel

Much overlooked, Laos north central town of Oudomxai is surrounded by stunning scenery to view while enjoying good Laotian cuisine at The Charming Lao Hotel.

Stuffed squid at Dibuk Restaurant

In a building as old as many bistros in Paris, under ceiling fans stirring the languid tropical air, guests of the Dibuk Restaurant in Thailand’s old Phuket Town can spend time dining with the Indian Ocean lapping nearby.

Tom Kha Gai and its ingredients
Chef Wan at Look-In restaurant

The Look-in Restaurant, just off Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road, is not on most visitors’ tourist map – not yet.

Tom Kha Gai, Thailand’s incomparable coconut soup with chicken and flavored with galangal is a Look-in knockout.

The finest restaurant in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi is also its most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, three-story French Art Nouveau townhouse.

Koto, Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s a quiet side to Cambodia’s bustling Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, on the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm.

at Bopha, Siem Reap, Cambodia: traditional fish stew
Pho at La Viet

The Italian Market/Queen Village district, to any resident of Philadelphia, is inexorably morphing into a little Southeast Asia.  A stroll through these historic colonial neighborhoods provides visual evidence of Asian grocery stores, restaurants and professional offices catering to this increasing community. The area around 11th Street and Washington Avenue includes a sizable number of Asian businesses and one very good Vietnamese fine dining restaurant, Le Viet.

Butterfish at Kinnaree restaurant

Set in an unassuming strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, Kinnaree Thai French Cuisine balances traditional Thai dishes with centuries old French influences.

 

 

 

 

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Southern Laos’ Ecotourism Future

From post-revolutionary obscurity, the once ancient kingdom of Champasak is at the center of southern Laos’ eco-tourism incentive.

On Don Khone, the Siphandon, Champasak Province, Laos

Cheap airfares, especially from Australia, and even cheaper cost of living attracted budget seekers of alternative vacations in the early 1990’s to the sleepy isolated islands of the Siphandon.

The Siphandon (4,000 Islands), from Don Khong, Champasak Province, Laos

Just 25 miles from the Cambodian border, Laos’ Mekong spreads up to 8 miles wide creating a delta-like region, the Siphandon, sheltering human and wildlife.

Hotel Senesothxeune and the Siphandon

Don Deth and Don Khone epitomize the Western vision of a tropical existence, sleeping in a hammock with mosquito netting, playing the guitar at night, picking fruit and spending as little money as possible.

Purple sticky rice: this nutty deep purple variety of Laos’ ubiquitous grain is usually reserved for desserts. Although a festive addition to dinner and delicious even when not sweetened, I was reminded of my favorite recipe for Purple Sticky Rice in Coconut Sauce.

varieties of sticky rice

You can read about all these topics in my latest articles on Suite101:

Southern Laos’ Eco Tourism Future

The Siphandon: Laos Mekong River Oasis

Purple Sticky Rice with Coconut Sauce: Laotian Khao Gam

Laos is an ancient land that is being rediscovered one (trekking) step at a time.

Southeast Asian Restaurants on a Mission: Feeding Body and Soul

 Four cities, three countries, four restaurants serving superior food, providing community training and accepting reservations – you’ll need one.

Place setting at Koto, Hanoi, Vietnam
Carrot cake at Koto, Hanoi, Vietnam

Koto, Hanoi, Vietnam (Know One, Teach One), founded in 1996 by Australian Vietnamese Jimmy Pham, has set the standard for grassroots not-for-profit restaurant ventures.

Forest Refuge & Papaya Cafe, Luang Namtha, Laos

Trekking first brought Karen and Andrej Brummer from New Zealand to Luang Namtha, just like nearly all visitors. Yet they soon felt a desire to remain and do something: Forest Refuge Bamboo Lounge.

Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant, Bangkok, Thailand, is famous, amusing and serious. Where else in Southeast Asia will there be a condom decorated Christmas Tree.

Makphet Restaurant/Friends-International, Vientiane, Laos

I tried to dine at Makphet three times during two trips to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Given the hype about this must-go-to restaurant, I was pleased that the experience was worth the wait.

Ingredients for Yum Khi Tom

A classic recipe, Yum Kai Tom incorporates all the basics that elevate Laos cuisine to a food experience.

Interior of Dibuk Restaurant, Phuket Town, Thailand

For the best bistro (far) east of Paris, try Dibuk Restaurant, old Phuket Town, Phuket Island, Thailand – no joke.

Thailand, Laos & Vietnam: Southeast Asian Restaurants on a Mission

Enjoy all my articles at Suite101.comInternational Dining Examiner and Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner for Examiner.com

Bangkok 2012

Bangkok and Vientiane: Legendary Capitals and Memorable Eats

Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos provide an abundance of eateries from street vendors to luxury hotel venues like Bangkok’s Centara Grand Hotel’s 55th/56th floor Red Sky dining room and Sky Bar.

Bangkok from the Sky Bar on the 56th floor of the Centara Grand Hotel

Yet in remote villages, some reachable only by boat, tools invented centuries ago are still used for preparing important aspects of traditional cooking such as sticky rice, eaten at every meal.

Sticky Rice drying in the sun

Grains of sticky rice are sun dried and then the hard hull must be broken and sifted away using large woven baskets. The young mother of this household gave me permission to film her children providing the power to operate the hull cracking tool.

The abundance of South East Asia’s food supply is not lost on its restaurants.

Mekong River at sunset from the Kong View Restaurant

In the Laotian capital,  Vientiane’s Kong View provides beautiful vistas of the Mekong River while preparing excellent dishes such as salt grilled river fish.

Ban Vilaylac, Vientiane, Laos

On a quiet street within the historic French colonial core of Vientiane, reservations may be necessary on weekends for Dining at Ban Vilaylac.

Chef Wan, Look-in Restaurant, Bangkok, Thailand

Soon to be on every foodie tourist map, two year old Bangkok’s Look-in Restaurant makes both a mean pizza and the best Tom Kha Gai I’ve eaten. Chef Wan gave me his Recipe for Tom Kha Gai.

Enjoy all my articles at Suite101.com and International Dining Examiner and Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner for Examiner.com

Tom Kha Gai and its ingredients

Luang Prabang, Laos: Ban Phousy Market & Tamarind Cafe

View from, and interior of, Tamarind Cafe, Luang Prabang, Laos

Long the ancient royal capital of Laos’ many national permutations, Luang Prabang was a favorite of the French during their century of domination with their architecture, but not their cuisine, influencing and complimenting the Laotians own superb sensibilities.  The city is stunning, serene and a foodie mecca.

Ban Phousy Morning Market, Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos and its food is fascinating, relaxed, less spicy and refined.

Ban Phousy Market, Luang Prabang, Laos

In a city known for its cooking classes, Tamarind offers unique full day experiences starting with a shopping expedition to the morning market.

spices, herbs and rice: Luang Prabang, Laos

 Read more at Suite101 – my latest Featured Article on the Food & Drink page’s Culinary Tourism section, including the recipe.

Luang Prabang, Laos: Tamarind Cafe’s Stuffed Lemongrass

Teaching, Cooking, Writing and Travel

“I was born with “wanderlust” according to the Minneapolis Multi Phasic Personality Inventory, a psych test I took in my 20′s.”

A great web site, www.teachingtraveling.com has just published an interview article they requested that I write:

“I’m a teacher. If I can teach hundreds of kids, I can teach myself.”

Parque National Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Travel 1931: A Reflection of (racist) Times

You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine, Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ). I did not seek out this magazine. This treasure of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift  knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.

cover of the Oct. 1931 edition, illustration by Frank Newbould

Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931, the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism is flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party is gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires control most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan is terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States has shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.

Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a 3-room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.

children gathering grapes in France, 1931, page 20
“land of boundless opportunity for the man of business”

The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia.  Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures is far different than those used for lands closer to home.

“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).

“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).

“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).

“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).

Soochow, China, photo by M. O. Williams, p.33
illustration for a Cunard Line ad.

Despite the racism, my 1931 edition of Travel is a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October issue is on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.

Clif Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, photo by Ewing Galloway, p. 27

Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to 2011. Today’s traveler needs $14.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.

The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression. You need $56 in 2011 – cheap but these were teaser rates  if you didn’t have a job..).  A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($1,750 in 2011 dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s travel ads urging the recession weary to travel once more.

I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home as a child and young adult. I assume the strong cultural inclusion of my parents negated any latent racism in the 1950s– 1960s. As a travel writer I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.

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